Three Violent People A Flawed, Fun Western Romp
By Kristin Battestella
Alas, here we are at another one of my affectionately coined, ‘Heston Hokeys’. 1956’s Three Violent People has the potential for some good western drama and action, but one inescapable element unintentionally and humorously stands out, even if it technically doesn’t exist.
Ex- woman of the night from St. Louis Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) stumbles into wild post-war Texas and meets Confederate cavalry Captain Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston). Their whirlwind romance leads to marriage, and with her past unknown to Colt, the newlyweds settle in at the Bar S Ranch. When Colt’s black sheep brother Cinch (Tom Tryon) returns to the homestead and carpet bagging commissioner Cable (Forrest Tucker) demands back taxes and restitutions, blackmail opportunities and the exposure of Lorna’s past threaten all.
Director Rudolph Mate (The 300 Spartans) opens the titular violence with a fast fight in the streets and plenty of post Civil War unrest. Witty confusion and mistaken introductions follow, setting up the proposed marital bliss. But only…dun dun dun! What’s worse than a prostitute past? A one armed brother! The audience would think Colt’s noble but rough attitude coming to a head over his wife’s secret would be enough drama- there’s absolutely no need for a reckless, wounded brother going nowhere angle. Had the sibling rivalry and amputation injury been the focus of the tale and dealt with in its proper heavy, Three Violent People wouldn’t feel hokey at all. Unfortunately, the entire aspect is played so askew. The over the top drama is too much scandal and not enough pain. Which burden takes precedence- the brother or the fact that his wife didn’t tell him she’s a working girl? We’re supposed to like Lorna’s sass, but she’s quite a liar. She had the immediate opportunity to own up. Hey, people had to do things of which they weren’t exactly fond during the war. Is this coming clean what Three Violent People’s about? Toss scheming carpetbaggers into the mix with guns and blackmail and things become just a bit uneven. Touches of cavalry action, Confederacy regret, and reconstruction dilemmas are also light amid the romance and scruples. Three Violent People feels as if it could have been epic, sweeping, and massive. However, the weird lens on our three little people and their hill of beans is slow, ill plodding, and nothing new. Though not a typical western and seemingly a more womanly oriented vehicle, there are still too many Victorian clichés- don’t faint over the big reveal, Lorna! Where’s all the supposed indiscretion in Three Violent People? How could it all boil down to an illicit pregnancy? They’re married. How illicit could it be?
Well, Anne Baxter makes a bemusing entrance in that stunning red dress! We’re accustomed to her sexy, husky sound in All About Eve and The Ten Commandments, so the Southern accent feels somewhat iffy, but the reddish hairstyling looks good. These put ons just take some getting used to- as does Lorna’s attitude. Sure, she doesn’t mean to deceive Colt and create a gold digging plan- or maybe such thoughts did occur to Lorna? When swept off her feet to become Mrs. Saunders, perhaps this falling in love and feeling as if she belongs really does come to mean her all? With this vague emotional beginning, what could possibly go wrong? Lorna’s even befrocked in symbolic white dresses and good ranch wife attempts- we should be rooting for this triumph over her past. However, it all seems too rocky and wayward to care. The prostitution revelation isn’t even the tipping point; Lorna’s producing a tainted heir is what makes things go sour. After all the laid on thick positive relationship possibilities, the back and forth hatred comes on so quickly. Are we still supposed to like them when they hate each other? We don’t even get to see Lorna pregnant! It’s mentioned, and then Three Violent People cuts to snow on the ranch and the doctor being called. All the great period Texas at large potential is dropped for this roller coaster romance, yet we can’t even tell if we’re supposed to feel for the lady or despise her. These missteps seriously hamper the audiences’ interests, but Baxter does her best in keeping the whirlwind entertaining. Lorna’s ultimate threat to NRA pimp Charlton Heston? “If I had a gun!”
Ah yes, Moses himself! Baxter’s Ten Commandments co-star looks good in a cowboy hat and fills the buckskin coat and stocky persona needed for Colt Saunders’ strong, hard man reputation. Although the fifties punches and fight scenes are obviously pulled, the Confederate captain- snappy in his full gray uniform- carries respect and valor along with some forced mid-century sex appeal. Chuck, unbuttoned to the naval and lying on the bed, putting Lorna over his knee and letting the hoop skirt fly up! The ‘Oh My!’ isn’t so scandalous today, and mixed signals don’t help. Is Three Violent People funny or sexy? There aren’t any cute music cues or laugh tracks, but Colt’s banter isn’t as tantalizing as it should be. For a supposedly high-end gentleman, he’s easily off on the wrong foot with the ladies. The humble, golly gee, runaround aspects stilt Heston, and the tacked on speaking Spanish feels phony. The rough, worn, and multidimensional capabilities from Heston have no depth in the script; Colt doesn’t even speak that much in Three Violent People. He can keep a scene together as needed and Heston’s presence makes up for some of the backward character development, but it’s tough to believe Colt’s tumultuous emotions and conflicting actions. He’s angry with Lorna. He kicks her out. He drags her back. He doesn’t want her to be pregnant. He will pay her to have his child. Oiy! And remember a marriage proposal and a kiss from Charlton Heston is “not the least bit like double entry book keeping, is it?” What?
Now, despite some scripting faults and poor character development, one might think that Three Violent People doesn’t sound that hokey, or in the least, not as bad as the killer ants and mail order brides guilty pleasure of Heston’s The Naked Jungle. Perhaps this picture isn’t cheesy in itself, no. Except today’s viewer might not be able to see past the unbelievable ridiculousness that is Tom Tryon as Colt’s angry one-armed brother Cinch. Yes, Tryon (later author of The Other, who knew?) has both his limbs and features, and Three Violent People unintentionally makes the exact thing Cinch isn’t supposed to have incredibly obvious. His first scene is shirtless, yes- Cinch is meant to be the sizzling, wild, dangerous younger brother who resembles his onscreen kin in no way whatsoever. Every stance and camera angle accentuates the poor trickery; it’s as if Cinch has his fictitious hand on his hip. The editing cutaways to avoid completely showing the ill begotten right side are forced into the frames at the wrong times, thus ruining the narratives and heavy conversations. Cinch is both cut and spliced into the film! Not to mention all this trouble is for someone who today would be considered unimportant in comparison to the leads, adding more flame to Three Violent People’s uneven and distracting fire. My goodness, cast someone of equal caliber, go with a limp, and save yourself the trouble of turning Three Violent People into a farce. I know I sound harsh in some of this one-armed bemusement, but this is a completely fake and unrealistic representation of an amputee, and it sidelines the entire picture.
Unfortunately, on top of the brotherly angst gone tucked behind one’s back, Three Violent People also hinders itself with very stereotypical African American treatments. All the servants are portrayed as giggling, happy folk seemingly blissfully unaware that the Civil War has just transpired. The Bar S ranch hands are handled slightly better thanks to a charming performance from Gilbert Roland (The Bad and the Beautiful) as foreman Innocencio, but the rest of the Mexican workers fumble with their English and must be prodded into remembering to remove their sombreros. They drink too much, sing off key, speak like Speedy Gonzales; their women weep, they all have a dozen kids, and everyone is related. At best, it’s as if the subordinates of Three Violent People simply weren’t given a second thought in regards to the time portrayed or the fifties mentality at work. At worst, the Black and Spanish are deliberately made small and simple in every aspect in order to make the White Ranch Master look good. These mistakes don’t take up much of the movie, but they are glaringly painful for today’s viewers when they do happen.
Thankfully, there is some period panache accenting Three Violent People. Fun music and folks whistling ‘Dixie’- literally- add to the Technicolor candlelight and frilly Victorian furnishings. This is a very colorful film, perhaps too fifties inaccurate thanks to the colorful ladies costumes. Did the gals really wear all that glitter and shine with full width hoop hems way out in the post-war wilderness? Due to the clean cut filming of the time, even the working girls seem overdressed compared to the now standard imagery of exposed corsets, petticoats, and naughty lace. Baxter’s yellow dress certainly brightens a room, but honestly, it looks completely 1950s before 1850s. Outside of a few buttoned up and proper frocks, most of Lorna’s stylized necklines and modern tops don’t match the over packed, reserved bottoms. Her low cut pink number looks 1955 off the rack vintage! Even for a fan of costuming, there are too many unnecessary swoopings, twirlings, and focuses on those big skirts. We notice the dresses; seriously, we can’t miss ‘em! Likewise, the Bar S interior sets are cool, but a little weird. There’s lots of stone and big Old World style akinning the grand- but apparently only two room- house to a transported Spanish castle. However, wooden beams, barrels, cobwebs, and ropes hang about the place, too. Like the rest of Three Violent People, the decoration is a little lacking in scale and sweeping scope. There are nice Union and cavalry designs and lovely outdoor scenery, but it’s not enough.
When I was a kid, for years I didn’t know the name of this movie. I just referred to it as, ‘The other Heston one with the flashy Anne Baxter costumes and the guy who so didn’t have the one arm.’ Delighted fashionistas can study Baxter’s stunning but erroneous gowns, granted. Otherwise, Three Violent People is a plodding, back and forth, double crossing, slow talking western with contrived plotting and too little of the expected action. Some viewers will certainly tune out of all this ridiculous pretentiousness, understandably. Yet all these faults don’t mean Three Violent People isn’t entertaining. One really can enjoy the potentially quality storylines and performances- so long as you take the classic corny, expected flaky, and unintentional humor, too. Unbemused audiences who don’t appreciate this hokey will find there simply isn’t much else here- although contemporary viewers can make a drinking game of that damnable arm. I mean, when he’s hanging off the back of the wagon with the sleeve flapping in the wind! Seriously, my cat’s eyes were dancing at the prospects! Laugh, delight, and indulge your id unabashedly with Three Violent People.